MADISON – Over the past decade, Wisconsin Republicans have received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the leader of a title loan company that sent lobbyists along with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on a free trip to London.
Since 2008, Select Management Resources chief executive officer Rod Aycox, his wife and other family in Georgia have contributed $87,500 to GOP candidates in Wisconsin, state campaign finance records show.
Vos, a Rochester Republican, drew notice this week for taking the four-day trip to England — an August excursion that contributed to the resignation Tuesday of his counterpart in Ohio.
Vos has said he followed state ethics laws in accepting the free trip and never talked about legislation with the lobbyists for LoanMax, a Select Management title lending business.
Mike Browne, the deputy director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said Vos and the industry “are no strangers,” given how much title lenders have donated to help Republicans take and keep the state Assembly.
“If there’s one thing to know about payday loans, it’s that the people in this racket expect to be repaid,” Browne said.
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For his part, Vos said in an interview that he has backed looser regulation of title and payday lenders because they played a role serving people with no other access to credit.
“I had never met the people who operate LoanMax and I still haven’t,” Vos said. “But I do think they have a right to operate.”
Cliff Rosenberger, the speaker of the Ohio House, said this week he was stepping down amid an FBI investigation that is reportedly looking at the London trip and other issues.
Vos said again Friday that he had not been contacted by the FBI or other authorities or discussed any legislation with lobbyists on the trip, either during it or afterward.
The bulk of the Aycox donations — about $65,000 — went to help Republicans seeking seats in the Assembly, including a $20,000 donation in October 2016 to the GOP caucus campaign fund. As speaker, Vos oversees that leadership committee and campaign efforts for GOP Assembly candidates.
Among the others donations were $8,000 to the Senate GOP campaign committee in October 2016; $2,500 in March 2017 to Attorney General Brad Schimel; $5,000 to Gov. Scott Walker in October 2014; and assorted smaller amounts to individual lawmakers.
Two out-of-state lobbyists for LoanMax, Steve Dimon and Leslie Gaines, went on the London trip, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
LoanMax has 16 locations around Wisconsin, according to its website. Select Management is registered to lobby in Wisconsin, but with different Madison lobbyists, Eric Petersen and Ken Walsh.
Vos said he had never met with Dimon or Gaines before or spoken with them since the trip. He said he has spoken in past legislative sessions about bills with Petersen, Walsh or other Wisconsin-based lobbyists for Select Management.
The company spent $96,000 on lobbying in Wisconsin last year, according to the state Ethics Commission. An official with Select Management has not responded to phone calls and emails this week.
Vos said his Republican caucus had considered making changes this session to rules for rent-to-own stores but not for title lending.
Critics of the title loan industry say it offers the promise of easy credit but can trap consumers in a cycle of debt and lead to the loss of their vehicle, hurting their ability to get to their job. Supporters of looser regulation such as Vos say the industry can help consumers with poor credit repair a car and shouldn’t be so tightly regulated that it can’t operate in Wisconsin.
Vos was in the news this week because he considered and then opted not to run to replace U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville, who is not seeking re-election.
Vos, an admirer of the British leader Winston Churchill, said it was reasonable for him as a state official to travel to England to learn about Churchill and global trade, even if lobbyists were there with him.
The Aug. 28-31 London trip was paid for by the conservative GOPAC Education Fund, one of a range of groups that help pay for educational conferences for state lawmakers, from the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures to the liberal State Innovation Network and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
Wisconsin ethics laws generally prohibit legislators from accepting valuable gifts but do allow them to accept travel expenses to go to conferences about official business.
GOPAC Executive Director Jessica Curtis has declined to disclose the cost of the trip or say whether Select Management helped pay for the program.
Also on the trip was former Wisconsin lawmaker and GOP fundraiser Michelle Litjens, who at the time was Vos’ fiancée and is now his wife. GOPAC did not cover Litjens’ costs, Vos has said.
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